(Ed: This article was originally written in French for the French-Canadian magazine Séquences. The writer, Anne-Christine Loranger, generously granted exclusivity to WINM to publish her English versions of both this review and its accompanying article, which includes scans of the French article.)
Side by Side
Entering the Matrix
The most burning theme in cinema right now has little to do with nominations, trailers or choices of directors. It has to do with the transition from photochemical movie-making to digital. Fifteen years after catapulting us into the computer world of The Matrix, Keanu Reeves is producing Side by Side, a major documentary project directed by Chris Kenneally that explores how the two technologies now coexist and what the future may bring us.
by Anne-Christine Loranger
Keanu Reeves is the opposite of stupid. Never mind what’s sometimes attached to his name: the man is brilliant. Anyone who (still) doubts this should see Side by Side the documentary which he produced and in which he interviewed 140 film experts. Movie artists and technicians from all over the world (Lars von Trier, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese to name only a few) have agreed to sit down with him and talk about their perspectives on the “history, process and workflow of both photochemical and digital film creation”. Side-by-Side refers to a moment at the end of the color correction procedure when the digital copy is being converted to celluloid. The digital image and the photochemical image are projected side by side to ensure that the celluloid copy sent to theaters matches the digital image. “Now”, as Chris Kenneally says, “it is two movie making media which coexist, side by side”. The digital medium is not only changing how we tell stories, it is changing the stories we tell and how we are experiencing them.
Side by Side began when Kenneally and Reeves were putting the finishing touches on a previous film project. “I was working with Keanu on the post-production of Henry’s Crime where I was a supervisor. He was starring in the movie and producing it”, explains the director, during an interview we had following the press projection of Side by Side in the Official Program of the Berlin Film Festival. “Keanu was very curious about the process and the workflow. We had a lot of conversations about filmmaking and movie making and where we’re going. He suggested “Would it not be great if we made a documentary about this and interviewed the people who are at the top of the art form right now?” I said, “Yes, that would be great. Let’s do it!”
One of the finest collections of filmmaking talent ever compiled for a single project, Side by Side impresses by its scope and cutting-edge aesthetics. From capture, to edit, to visual effect, to color correction, to distribution, to archive and even to movie-going experience, every step in the movie-making process is examined through a dizzying array of film footage and interviews with some of the world’s most famous film makers, artists and technicians. Although shot in digital, the movie carefully avoids taking sides and gives a voice to every point of view. George Lucas, a digital pioneer, explains how the technology democratizes the whole movie making process, while producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura fears a wave of mediocre films flooding the market without the weeding of “tastemakers”. David Lynch feels that he is done with photochemical filmmaking while Christopher Nolan affirms “there isn't yet a superior or even an equal imaging technology to film”. Lars von Trier recalls how the first digital cameras were used in the spirit of Dogma 95 to give a superior feeling of truth and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle how he was both “applauded and almost executed” for having used a handheld Sony digital camera in Thomas Vinterberg’s A Celebration. Actor John Malkovitch loves the feeling of being able to play for a long time without the obligatory interruptions of changing the film spools while others, such as Robert Downey Junior and Keanu Reeves himself, need the breaks.
Beautifully shot by the exquisite camera of Chris Cassidy, who manages to make photochemical acid baths look interesting, the film keeps a fast pace, juggling from interviews to films caps to footage taken directly from sets. The rhythm reminds one of John Updike’s early novels and his almost religious refusal to use metaphors, a decision also upheld by the moviemakers. The use of a metaphor, such as a comparison with the workings of the human eyes, would yet have been useful to insert the torrent of technical data on digital cameras in such a way as to be more easily understood and remembered by the viewers.
Side by Side also questions the lesser-known problem of archiving. The industry is not only questioning itself on matters of theater going, copyrights and distribution. After more than 100 years of photochemical archiving, it is now urgently searching for solutions for digital movie conservation1 2 3 4 5 6. When asked during the latest Berlinale if he wasn’t scared of the impact of the digital age on the projection of old film reels (such as used every year in the Berlinale’s Retrospective), director Dieter Kosslick confidently answered us that we would simply have to digitalize them to make them accessible to the new projectors. There is, unfortunately, no existing digital technology for safe and durable archiving. The digital technologies have a life expectancy of a maximum of 5-10 years7. The new medium is forcing the studios to move from “cold” shelf film archiving to “hot” archiving i.e., continuous transfers into the next available technology, at superior costs. Although the new SSD Hard disks (with solid-state memory instead of a motor and mechanical parts) have, according to their makers, a life expectancy of 8-12 years, they still have to past the test of time. Ditto for the new double-density Blue-Rays. Even if these new technologies give us the near 100% safety factor required for conservation, we are still far from the 100 years archiving time offered by polyester-based film.
Ironically, the US studios’ preferred archiving method for their digital movies right now is to transfer them into… film! At a moment when costs in post-production are already exploding, the Kodak film company’s recent bankruptcy has generated a well-grounded fear regarding the consequences that the imminent disappearance of the photochemical industry could have on our know-how and capacities for long-time archiving. Technological challenges such as these cannot be evaluated only according to technological criteria. One must consider the concrete historical and social context to understand what the future may bring. The complex ecosystem of the film industry must be apprehended in its entirety, in all of its interactions and implications. “The issue is that it’s different”, says director Martin Scorsese, “how is it different and how do you use it to tell a story, it’s up to the filmmaker.” So it is. But it is also tributary, as the film shows, to the spirit of a whole industry.
Vast in its scope, entertaining in its approach, profound in its implications, Side by Side has enough content to interest films buffs and historians, as well as general movie goers. Let us hope that the treasure of 140 interviews (of which 70 made it to the screen) will eventually be made available on the Internet to generate discussions – even solve problems. The new web technology developed by Kioza Concept Design, which integrates easy and controllable access to videos with web publishing, community exchanges and blogs, might be a possible solution.
We have the culture of our tools. Fifteen years after the Wachowski’s mythically coded computer epic, the world of cinema is plunging into the digital ocean. A new creative dimension is opening before us, with unforeseen- and unprecedented, dangers. Where is Smith lurking, Neo?
“Dimmi se mai fu fatto cosa alcuna.”
(Tell me if someone has ever done this.)
Leonardo da Vinci, Sketchbooks
1Digital Dilemma – strategic issues in archiving and accessing digital motion picture materials. Report for the Science and Technology Council of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science. 2007
2Threats to data integrity from use of large-scale data management environments. Matthew Addis. Southampton University. February 2010
3The Data-Center as a Computer: An Introduction to the design of warehouse-scale machines. Barroso and Holze. Google Inc. Synthesis Lectures on Computer Architecture. 2009
4Collecter et conserver les films du dépôt légal fournis sur support numérique. Broca and Traisnel, CNC. June 2011
5Digital Dilemma 2: Perspectives from Independent Filmmakers, Documentarians and Non-Profit Audio-Visual Archives, Report for the Science and Technology Council of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science. 2012
6Long-term management and storage of digital motion picture materials, Report for the Science and Technology Council of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science. 2012
7An example has been given of a feature film shot in 2002 whose digital data were unreadable in 2010.